Late last summer, I did something that pushed my capabilities to the max and changed something inside me.
And, no, it wasn’t running the farthest distance I’ve ever done. That honor goes to the Tunnel Hill 50 Miler.
No, it actually wasn’t the most elevation climbed either. I managed that when I ran the Art Loeb Trailand climbed around 10,000 feet of vert.
So, what could have been more challenging than any of my past experiences?
The Tecumseh Trail. Indiana’s second longest trail, coming in at 40 miles of quintessential Hoosier terrain.
On September 15, I headed down the new-to-me Tecumseh Trail with nothing but my headlamp to light the way. Tecumseh was marked very well with white blazes on the trees, some signage at intersections, and special markings when the TT joins another trail for a certain distance. So, as long as I kept my head up and focused, I’d know what was going on. I may not know exactly where I was or what was coming up next, or what to expect around that dark corner, but I knew I was on the Tecumseh Trail, right where I belong.
For 40 miles, I explored the woods and trails of Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood State Forests. Climbing impossibly high, by Indiana standards, and experiencing heart-filling beauty.
On paper, and on Strava, it was 40 miles and a little more than 13 hours.
But in my heart, this was an unrivaled adventure that changed me.
In the days and weeks after my run, as my legs recovered and as I started to wrap my mind around what I had accomplished, I came to realize that I broke through something – something that I still can’t quite define. I came to believe in my capabilities more, and trust that I would be able to do something. Something like run harder up that hill. Run longer, farther, faster.
Another thing I came to realize that oddly took more time to accept is that I realized the love I have for Indiana’s wilderness.
I have spent the last several years falling deeply in love with trail running. That love has come over miles and miles of Indiana hardwood forests. My through-run of Tecumseh broke down a barrier in my heart for this state and the outrageous beauty you can find here.
“But the mountains!” my romantic soul cries out.
I wasn’t born in the mountains, my soul wasn’t grown there, but somehow, I yearn for them as much as anything. At the same time, I find deep fulfillment in the knobs and ravines, man-made wilderness lakes, and the incredible dense forest of the Midwest.
I realize now, it’s not the mountains I love: It’s the mind-blowing beauty of nature in all its glory.
Yeah my Hoosier state is hot and humid in the summer. Sure it’s colder than one might expect in the winter. But there is such beauty in each season, and in each color the seasons bring.
So in an effort to embrace this newfound love, I’m diving headfirst into Indiana trail running — not because it’s all that’s available to me, but because it’s where I thrive.
The other day I had a health screening for my insurance at work. They check basic things and “grade” you based on national guidelines for weight (BMI, body fat %), cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure.
It didn’t go great for me — beginning with the weigh-in. I’ll never hit my BMI, which isn’t a fair measurement anyway. According to my BMI, I’m obese, which I’ve gotten used to seeing. I also didn’t hit my body fat %, which was disappointing, but I don’t normally think much of it. But on that day, the nurse practitioner apologized a lot to me when I didn’t hit the numbers I was supposed to. “I’m so sorry…I’m just…I’m so sorry.” Why was she sorry? I wasn’t dying, and to be honest, those measurements are a poor snapshot look into my overall health.
After that nonsense — plus a finger prick to get blood — my blood pressure was in the “pre-hypertension” range.
My bloodwork came back okay, but not incredible.
The advice I was given was to eat more vegetables and exercise more.
As I went back to my desk, the voice of that nurse practitioner saying “I’m sorry… I’m just so sorry” played on a loop in my mind.
Have I failed at being healthy?
Even though I’m vegan and an ultrarunner, I still need to be given the advice of eat more vegetables and exercise more. What have I done wrong?
As I sit here writing this, I’ve lost 72 pounds from my heaviest weight. I’ve run more than a thousand miles this year, and I’ve run well over a thousand each year for the last several years. I’ve completed 10 ultramarathons, including two mountain adventures.
But everything I’ve done and accomplished — things I could not have imagined doing only a few years ago — some days they count for nothing. Nothing.
Every pound I gain weighs on my mind like 100 pounds. But rather than every lost pound feeling like a victory, that psychological weight sticks around and may never go away.
That one pound lost is like a small stone tossed at the giant wall of work yet to be done.
When those pounds become noticeable — whether it’s a notch on my belt or a strained button on my shirt — body dysmorphia causes me to imagine myself looking like those numbers at the clinic tell me I look: obese. An “I’m so sorry…” level of obese.
With these thoughts and feelings dragging me down, I headed to a company meeting. I sat down and looked around the room to say hello to people I know. I caught the eye of a friend, Angie, who was sitting a few rows back and over from me. I waved at her, and she pantomimed that I was looking thin and fit. She said I looked really great.
I’m not very good at accepting compliments for some reason, so I sheepishly smiled and said thanks, and then the meeting started.
As I sat, though, I realized how meaningful it was for Angie to say that, and what it actually meant. It meant the world. It was a lifeline that pulled me out of the pit I was sinking into.
After the meeting was over, I thanked Angie properly. I told her how much it meant for her to say such kind things — and that I had been feeling down about the way I looked and felt, and what she said really helped me out. We talked a little about what I’m doing to stay fit.
What does this all mean?
All of this happened in the morning. My health screening was at 7:30am, and the company meeting was at 9:00am. I thought about everything all day trying to sort out everything I felt. It was a meaningful day, and I think there are three takeaways:
1. Be kind to each other.
Compliment your friends and coworkers. Be genuine about it. It could change their day in ways you couldn’t have planned for.
2. Accept compliments, even if you don’t believe them.
I don’t mean receive a compliment, like I did at first. Accepting it, especially when you may not even believe it, will have a great effect.
You deserve to be complimented. You deserve to feel so great about yourself.
3. You are not — and never, ever will be — a loser.
And I say this while coming off of feeling like a pretty big loser myself.
But it’s true, no matter what rebuttal you have. You are not a loser.
You gain weight. You lose weight. You work hard. You try your best to be your best. Every bit of that means you are a strong, beautiful, person. Perhaps the most winningest of them all.
There have been so many times that I’ve found myself asking: “What the hell am I doing out here?”
The 5am alarm on a Saturday morning.
Pushing through thick, wet snow and icy cold wind, my beard turned into icicles.
Deep in the woods, swimming through the humidity and heat, sweat soaking my socks and shoes.
Trudging up yet another hill during an ultramarathon, the finish line somewhere in the distance.
Why am I even bothering? I’m literally going nowhere!
But invariably – invariably – the next day, those thoughts are gone. Instead, I’m remembering what it felt like to be on an adventure. Discovering new trails, new abilities, and being inspired with new ideas.
I’ve thought about it. You know, the big “IT.” Would I give this up? Would I stop pursuing these crazy miles? And I know, without a doubt, that I would absolutely not give it up. In his song “Every Time,” David Ford says “I’d choose this mother*****, and I’d choose it again.”
That’s why I’m currently planning to complete solo runs of Indiana’s two longest trails, the Tecumseh Trail and the Knobstone Trail. For no other reason than that I love adventure, and trail and ultrarunning has taken me to some of my greatest adventures.
I’ll start with Tecumseh, a 42-mile point-to-point trail in my own Hoosier State, only a few hours from my house. Tecumseh is pretty hilly, with 4,000 – 6,000 feet of vert (depending on who you ask), so this isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but I’ll be ready. I’m building on the stellar work I put in for Gnaw Bone, so I have a pretty good head start. I’ll do this sometime in August (date TBD).
After that, I’ll set my sites on Knobstone, an infamous Hoosier trail if ever there were one. Its 50 miles rolls through notoriously difficult terrain with steep climbs and descents and very few switchbacks. It’s also well-known for being pretty dry, with little-to-no access to water on the trail. Thankfully Ashley is going to crew me for both adventures.
There’s more to plan and sort out, but I’m so excited to hit the trails for a few solo adventures.
It’s been a few weeks since Gnaw Bone, and I’ve started working toward my next goal run, and I want to talk about that – so maybe I need to talk about Gnaw Bone too.
So there’s really no way to sugar coat it. I did not run 50 miles at Gnaw Bone like I had planned.
That statement comes a mix of pride and disappointment. Yeah, it’s a little confusing. Not only that, but any time someone asks me how that run went, it’s not as easy as “It went great!” or “It didn’t go so great.”
Here’s what happened:
At 6:15 on race day, the director yelled “GO!”, and 50 milers and 50kers took off into the twilight. For most runners, the beginning of an ultra is not an all out rush toward the finish line because we all know we’re going to be on the trail for many hours. In my case, I was aiming for a 12-hour finish.
The Gnaw Bone course is like a crazy lollipop. The 50K and 50M run essentially the same course: both start and finish on the stick of the lollipop and run clockwise around the sucker part. The 50K runs once around the sucker, and the 50M runs twice around the sucker. At mile 27, where the stick meets the sucker, there’s an aid station. I had to reach that aid station before 1:30 pm if I wanted to go back out for a second loop around the sucker.
There’s not a ton that happened in the first few hours, except for settling into an all-day routine of run, sweat, eat, drink, repeat. I started off pushing my mind into positive space pretty early, so I would have a habit in place when the going got tough. I focused on the miles and hours I was crossing off my “to do” list. I kept saying “You’re doing great. Keep going.” I thanked the volunteers, told the other runners they were doing great. All the good stuff. I really felt wonderful.
At around mile 20, the course goes from flowy singletrack to rough off-trail bushwhacking, which is very difficult. We go straight up the steep hills instead of running up switchbacks, and instead of clear, smooth trails, the path is strewn with deadfall and bramble. But I kept going. Crossing the miles off. Even when giant horseflies started circling my head, I fought them off with my Buff and powered through.
Focused on that 50-mile finish.
When I stopped at mile 23 to meet Ashley at the aid station, my legs started cramping.
My quads seized up first, which is an unfortunately familiar feeling. But then my calves and feet cramped up. I sat still and tried to get them to relax, drinking water and taking salt pills.
This was probably the worst I felt all day. I was nearly halfway through the race, and things were really tough already. These cramps really threatened my positivity. “Why does it have to be so hard?” I asked Ashley as I sat at a picnic table, waiting for my legs to release.
A few minutes passed and my cramps eased.
I changed my shoes and headed back onto the trail.
Through more off-trail, over more ridges and through ravines, I found a new routine. Run until the cramps come, take more salt and drink more water, keep running. It was painful, and I wasn’t going as fast as I would have liked through the tougher sections, but I was moving – determined as ever.
Focused on that 50-mile finish.
I allowed my average pace to fall, but I had a plan. After the mile 27 aid station, the course goes level for a little while as we head back toward Ogle Lake. Level, and even down hill for about 4 miles. I knew I could make up some time when I got to that point, so I kept pushing. Pulling precious seconds back so I could lower my average pace and stay on target.
Finally the course came out of the woods and onto the road for a little while. I ran as well as I could, still nursing cramping calves, as I headed toward a major point in the race: the mile 27 aid station that I needed to reach by 1:30. It’s there that I could also choose whether to continue the 50-mile run or drop down and finish the 50k. Of course I was going to finish the 50-mile run.
As I approached the decision point, though, the volunteer at the aid station said, “I have some bad news for you.”
I missed the cutoff by 4 minutes.
I looked down the road and let out a sigh. I had worked hard all day with an unwavering focus on a 50-mile finish, and I was so ready to head back out on my second loop. I knew I was going to finish.
But, the rules said I would not get that chance. My 50-mile finish faded away.
I ate some food, drank some some soda, and got back on the stick part of the course and headed to the finish line 3.5 miles away.
When I crossed the finish line, I got a medal and a nice cold IPA. Then I sat on the porch of Mike’s Dance Barn with my friends.
It’s always a great feeling to finish an ultramarathon, and I’ve tried to hold onto that these last few weeks. I’m proud of what I did. Not only did I run 31.63 miles, but more importantly: I didn’t let fear and past failures dictate what I can and cannot do.
Even if I didn’t reach my ultimate goal, I ran a smart race and gave it everything I had. Sometimes it just takes a few tries to reach that goal.
I will always be proud of giving it everything I’ve got.
In 2014, I ran my fastest half marathon, breaking through the 2-hour mark for the first time, crossing over the finish line at a stunning 1:59:11. It was barely under 2 hours, but it was under nonetheless. Then I stopped racing road halfs and dug more deeply into trail and ultra running, which is really where my passion lies.
But this year, I decided to do another road half – really because of one specific reason:
After an incredible spring of running the 30-mile Art Loeb trail and racing Yamacraw 50k again, I came into the summer on a DNF. I attempted a 50-mile trail race, and dropped out at around mile 21. While I do not think dropping was the wrong decision on that day, it still felt like a kick to the stomach. I didn’t like thinking about it let alone talking about it. Which is why you have likely not heard anything about it.
With the summer approaching, my motivation to run was all but gone. My confidence in my own running abilities was just shot. I had planned a pretty ambitious year, and I didn’t think I could do any of it any more. Toeing the line at another ultra seemed like a terrible idea.
So I decided to go small and build back up, snagging wins along the way. I don’t mean medals and awards – but injections of confidence: I can run, I can work hard, I can achieve. And that’s just what I did. With Doug’s guidance, I got into speedwork like never before. At first, I wanted to go for a 5k PR, but shortly into that, I thought it wasn’t enough. I wanted to dig deeper, so I set my sights instead on the Evansville Half. This would mean hard track workouts under the blazing summer sun. Tough tempo runs through the streets of Evansville under the blazing summer sun. Long runs with speed work – under the blazing summer sun.
While the miles wouldn’t be quite as long as what I had gotten used to in training for ultras, they would be tougher miles. And I loved it. Heading to the track to bust out 400s, 800s, and 1600s at paces I had never run before was incredible. I could feel myself getting stronger, and the confidence that has come with that is priceless.
A few weeks before the race, I hit the road for the longest run of the cycle. It was 15 miles, with the first three miles at race pace and the last 3-5 miles also at race pace. When I finished, I had busted my half marathon PR by three minutes. So that sort of set my goal for the race even higher. Not only do I need to break by PR from 2014, but I also wanted to break my NEW PR from a training run.
I was thrilled.
I got into the starting corral on October 14 with a few thousand other runners, ready to tour the city and see what I’m capable of.
The Evansville Half Marathon course is flat and fast. The first 8 miles, there are basically no hills at all. The last 5 get a little rolly – with 4- to 5-foot hills, which can seen a little insurmountable after running hard on flat roads for so long.
Ashley rode her bike through town to see me at a few places along the course, which was always a welcome boost. She waved and yelled, and I grinned and ran.
The first few miles, I eased up to my sub-8:30 pace, and it really felt pretty comfortable. My legs were turning over well, and my breathing wasn’t too labored. Eventually, it would start to feel more difficult to keep that pace during those last 5 miles. When the going got tough, I turned up my tunes and focused on keeping my form under control. Turning corners, climbing little hills, wincing into the bright sun and blue sky.
I knew this is what I worked hard all summer to do. I knew that I could do the distance; I knew I could hold the pace.
I picked up the pace slightly over the last 1 or 2 miles – or at least increased the effort. The finish line came into view. I locked eyes on that big inflatable frame.
At 1:52:36, I crossed through. Tired, sore, sweaty.
When I’m anticipating the end of the work day, I’m thankful for the second hand’s unceasing movement – Because it’s almost 4:00, which means in an hour, I’ll be headed home. 30 minutes after that, I’ll be headed into the woods.
Even now, typing these words, I get a small surge of adrenaline.
The woods are where I belong, and today is Tuesday.
Tuesdays are for trail running.
When work is over, I get home and change into running clothes, pull on my trail shoes, and drive across that money-saving bridge into Henderson where, just on the other side of the Ohio River, John James Audubon State Park awaits. This park is home to a short trail system that is remarkably grueling – perhaps even more grueling because no one expects it when they head back there for the first time.
I run in to the heavy hardwood canopy and follow the single track to get as many miles as I can before the sun goes down. As the summer wanes, the forest’s deepening shadows urge me forward, up steep hills, along plummeting ridge lines, and flying down into ravines – only to come back up again and again.
It’s only 15 minutes from my home in the city, but these woods are a welcome refuge from the noise and bustle of the highways and expressways that crisscross Evansville.
From a few points on the trail, high above the Ohio River, I can look out and see the tall buildings in Downtown Evansville miles away. I can’t hear it, but I can see it. Then I turn and head back into the woods and stop to look at the turtles that line the fallen trees around the edges of Wilderness Lake. On the other side of the lake, a deer heads down for a drink. Her red-brown body reflects in the water in front of the deep forest that climbs up the hill behind her.
Audubon is a beautiful place to run – but it’s also maddeningly difficult. There are days that the wild ascents take everything in my mind and body to get over. My legs take bites out of the hill, climbing up to a peak that I can’t see. Maybe it’s around this corner…maybe this one? Surely this one.
When I finally reach the top, heart thumping in my chest, I don’t stop. Instead, I pick up the pace a little, allowing my legs to turn faster on the relative flat of the ridge line. Soon, my pulse slows and my legs settle into a relaxing cadence – just before I dive back down into a ravine and head for another climb.
It never gets old, this early work week escape between the office and the dinner table. It’s always a true pleasure to suddenly be deep in the woods running with deer, squirrels, spiders, and horseflies. With a smile as I turn onto Backcountry Trail, I wholeheartedly welcome the challenges I know are just beyond the next curve, and I relish the opportunity to give it my all on a training run that is every bit as fun as it is important for my fitness and goals.
It’s Transcendent Trail Run Tuesday. Hit the trails – they’re waiting.
Sometimes running can only be described as magical.
Moments like the one pictured above – when I’m on top of a mountain with other mountains, the big blue sky, and big fluffy clouds all around. But, I can also feel the magic when I’m climbing that mountain in the rain with more mountains and miles ahead of me.
The mountains don’t even have to be there. I feel the magic when I’m deep in the dark green woods, following the dusty singletrack for miles and miles.
I live for this magic. The moments that last in my mind forever.
While running in the mountains and forests are the most fulfilling for me, I begin the majority of my runs by going out my front door and turning either left or right – and I don’t live near mountains or in the forest. When I’m grinding out the miles on the roads around my neighborhood during the week, it can be difficult to find the magic.
And, if I’m being perfectly honest, those weekday miles can really be a drag.
But, while they may not always be magical, those weekday runs are probably the most important. Without solid weekday miles, the long runs on the weekends and the adventure runs in the mountains would not be possible. It’s a simple equation. Much like I work during the day at my job so I can afford to do the things I love, I run during the week to have the ability to go on the adventures I love.
Just because my weekday runs don’t have the obvious makings of a magical adventure, that doesn’t mean that they don’t hold some type of magic of their own.
So, starting today, I’ve committed to finding the magic in every run.
I’m not going to force it, but I’m going to look for it. There is magic today; I just need to be open to it.
I’ll share my experiences on Instagram – so if you don’t already follow me there, you should! I’ll post a picture from every one of my runs that shows some of the beautiful places I get to run in town and in the woods.
I also want to challenge you to look for the magic in your own life. You’re in your life’s adventure today. Some day you’ll think back to now and say “Remember when…?” Make sure you appreciate it while you’re living it.
Ever since I started running ultra distances, I’ve been asked a lot of the same questions. The first and most common is: “Why?”
It’s oddly one of the more difficult questions to answer; maybe because I think too hard about it. I try to look into my psyche and find the real thing – the deep answer about what makes me want to run farther and farther.
But, really – I don’t have to dig deep to find the true answer.
Several years ago, I embarked on a backpacking trip with a group of students from the university where I work. This was going to be my longest backpacking trip, and we were going to the mountains of Pisgah National Forest to hike the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail. This was before I ever dreamed of running, let alone trail running.
To make a long story incredibly short, things didn’t go super well that week. The entire trip was a lot harder than anyone anticipated. To top it all off, we finished on the wrong side of the mountain.
While things didn’t go terribly smoothly, the trip did leave me with the desire to go back and get it right.
One year later, I went back. This time, it was with Ashley and a friend. We caught a ride from someone to take us to the trailhead. While we were in the car, that person told us about a “group of crazy people” that comes out to the Art Loeb every December and runs the entire length of it in a single day.
“What? How is that even possible? How do they carry food, water…how do they make it up the mountains….etc., etc.”
I had just run my first half marathon a few weeks earlier, so the idea of going 30 miles in the mountains in one go was unfathomable. And, as as we tried to figure out the logistics of such an undertaking, it just became more difficult to wrap my head around it. But at the same time…something stirred inside me.
I want to run the Art Loeb Trail.
For several years, I’ve had that trail in the back of my mind with every ultra I run. Every time I finish a 50k, I try to imagine what it would have been like to cover that distance on the switchbacks up Pilot Mountain, climbing up to Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, and traversing the Shining Rock Wilderness and the Narrows – all major points along the Art Loeb, if you haven’t guessed that already.
So imagine how it felt when earlier this year, I learned that my running coach (Doug Hay) was planning to run the Loeb in March 2017. Imagine again how it felt when he asked “Want to join?”
On Saturday, Doug and I ran the Art Loeb Trail – an actual dream come true for me. I’ll write a post about the trip and the conditions and challenges we met with along the way later. But first, I want this sentiment to stand alone:
I run ultras because it feels so good to follow a dream from its infancy to its completion. It feels so good to say “yes” to the adventures that at first seem impossible or crazy. It really seems crazy and impossible are the most appealing to me.
I hope next year is epic. I’m already planning for it to be. I have an A race in mind, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever attempted. But, it won’t be the farthest I’ve run. It’s “only” a marathon. It’s a marathon that one guy described as “a pissed off 50k.” It’s the marathon Trail Runner magazine calls “The toughest marathon you’ve never heard of.”
I call it my A race – for 2018.
I like planning. I like big goals. This race will require big goals, strategic planning, hard work, and dedication. It like the perfect puzzle piece in my lifestyle.
It’s the Athens Big Fork Trail Marathon. The course follows a 100-year-old horse postal trail through the mountains. It’s an out-and-back trail that goes up and over eight mountains – then back over those eight mountains, finishing right where it started after 9200 feet of mountain running.
Ever since I heard about it, I’ve been wanting to do it. The one thing that has been holding me back is that I don’t think I’m ready for that. That race is too hard, too much.
But then I realized that too hard and too much has never stopped me before.
In order to run a race like the Big Fork, I’ll need to be really ready. There are cutoff times to think about, so I’m not going to be able to just meander the mountains hoping for the best. As a result, I’m treating all of 2017 as training for BF.
Here are the key races I’m planning to run:
Yamacraw 50k (April)
Gnaw Bone 50 mile (May)
Shawnee Hills 50k (August)
Rough Trails Ultra 50k (November)
Training for four ultramarathons will help give me a massive endurance base. Plus all four of those races are pretty hilly, so I’ll build climbing legs and develop more efficiency on the hills, which will be so important for Big Fork.
The working out.
But, as I know for a fact, and as I am not good at compensating for, merely running does not a good runner make. In 2016, I did a run streak: I ran at least one mile every day for the entire year – but what I’ve learned (and I’ll get into more in a different post) is that a run streak really doesn’t have a ton of actual benefits – aside from forcing very consistent running routine, of course. I definitely didn’t become a stronger runner because of it.
But, I did really like the consistency it brought to my training, and that got me thinking. I could do a different daily challenge that would bring more benefits to my running and goals. So, in 2017, I’ll be doing a core workout challenge. Every day, I’ll do a 10-minute workout including leg, arms, and core strengthening exercises. This will go a lot further toward making me a stronger, leaner runner. Which should get me up and over eight mountains – twice.
2016 was my year of discipline. Even with each day anchored by a run, I’m still not quite sure I really achieved the level of discipline I wanted to achieve. It’s illusive and it’s hard to say exactly what I’m looking for, but know that I’m not quite there.
One of my weaknesses is that I give in to my excuses too often. While I do get my runs done, I don’t do them when I really want to (i.e., in the morning), and I don’t get my cross training done as consistently as I should.
So, in 2017, I’m going to dive into all the clichés. No excuses. Just do it. The daily workout challenge is going to be a big part of that. It’s going to have a big, positive effect, but I know it’s going to be a challenge to do it every day without fail.
My first 50-miler was everything I wanted it to be. It was everything I dreamed of when I registered, my new belt buckle already glinting in my eyes.
Total distance: 50.15 miles
Total elevation gain: 757 feet
Official time: 10:27:20
The race was going to kick off at 7:30 on Saturday morning, and we were fortunate enough to be able to camp (for free!) at the starting line. No 3:30 a.m. wake-up call! The morning went by really quickly from the minute I woke up to when I was suddenly standing in a huge crowd of runners who were going to run either 100 miles or 50.
I heard the race director faintly over the din of the other runners, but I didn’t hear the countdown or really even the “Go!” before suddenly everyone was surging forward to run a loop around the campground/parking area before getting on the Tunnel Hill State Trail for the rest of the day.
Nothing unusual happened for a while. The Tunnel Hill course goes along what was once a railroad track, so there aren’t any sharp turns or steep climbs ever. It’s so unremarkable of a course, generally, that I was surprised to see on my GPS that there was a little bit of an S-bend on the trail because it was so gentle of a curve.
We ran south for a little more than 13 miles before turning back to go north for about 25 miles. Then we turned around and went back to the middle to finish.
While the course may seem unremarkable, it’s really quite pretty. There are bridges that go over rivers and valleys, a few small towns, beautiful farmland, and plenty of animals. I saw a lot of cows and dogs.
Ashley was waiting for me at mile 16, 26, and 40 – and a surprise visit at probably mile 21. She was there to help me replenish my nutrition and to help keep my spirits up. Several days before the race, we talked about what would be most helpful for me at those aid stations. I had told her to not engage in any negativity I brought with me – and to make me smile and say nice things. This might seem silly, but a positive mindset, even if it’s forced, is imperative for something like this. Being able to see Ashley was always something to look forward to.
The unusual thing that happened was that I started fading fast really early in the race. My legs got achy too early, and my mind started to drift into negative territory long before that should have happened. When I first saw Ashley at mile 16, I was pretty out of it. I was starting to get crabby.
I tried not to let it get me down, as I ate some of my sweet potatoes and drank Tailwind, just as I had planned. But it wasn’t working. I still felt energy leaving, and nothing I was doing was bringing it back.
I packed 12 dates and four roasted sweet potatoes (in wedge form). I had eaten two dates, and hated both of them. They tasted normal, but I didn’t want them. The sweet potatoes tasted fine, and were enjoyable enough, but they just weren’t doing anything for me. After a while, they would just sit in my stomach like a lump, and I started feeling pretty crummy and a little light-headed.
This was going to be a long day if I couldn’t figure this out. I ran a quick diagnostic. I felt like I was crashing, and my negative attitude was a good sign I was low on electrolytes. It didn’t make sense because I was eating and drinking plenty – but “sense” don’t mean nothing. My mind was telling me one thing, but my body was telling me something totally different: I was fading, light-headed, and crabby. Something needed to change, and quickly.
Luckily, I packed a Huma gel in my hydration pack, and one extra gel in one of my drop bags. I packed them in case I needed a “shot in the arm” later on in the day. This was not part of my nutrition plan, and I have never really practiced running with gels as nutrition. But I brought them anyway “just in case.”
It took me a while to both remember that I had the Huma gel and to move past the safety of my nutrition plan. I had spent a lot of time figuring out what works best for me and doesn’t hurt my stomach – and I was certain I had figured it out. I just need to eat more taters…I just need to drink more Tailwind…but, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t working on Saturday.
I don’t remember exactly when it was that I ate the first gel. I think it was after 25 miles, but I don’t quite remember – but I had a pretty good feeling about it right away because that thing tasted freaking amazing. It was strawberry lemonade flavored, and it blew my mind.
Before long, I was coming out on the other side of some really hard hours, and I started feeling really good. My legs and feet were sore, of course, but nothing was getting me down. The rest of my day, I ate primarily gels and drank Tailwind, and my energy leveled out, and I felt great for the rest of the day. I had a few peanut butter pretzels and some grapes at the aid stations, but I was being really cautious about what I ate.
While by now in my running “career,” I’m pretty familiar with running on tired, sore legs, it can still be difficult. It gets more difficult when you know you’ll be running nearly 20 miles longer than you’ve ever run before. So, when the going got tough, I came up with a plan that kept me moving forward. I would run 1 mile and then allow a .25-mile walk. This was important because running a mile when you’ve already run 30+ miles can seem insurmountable at times. Forcing myself to run a mile in exchange for a .25-mile walk seemed like a sweet deal. It also gave me something to think about besides simply “run,” and it gave me a strategy and took away the option to just stop running willy-nilly. I had to wait until I had gone at least a mile.
I strapped on my headlamp some time after mile 40 shortly before the sun set and the trail went dark. I ran for a little while with only my headlamp lighting the way, calling out encouragement to the other bouncing headlamps and various lights that I passed. I counted the bridges I crossed and noted the mile markers left over from the railroad. I was getting so close. My watch informed me that I passed 50 miles shortly before I exited the woods.
When I crossed the finish line, I was elated. It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done – it’s still hard to believe that I just ran 50 miles just a few weeks ago. Even with multi-day backpacking trips in the mountains, I’ve never covered 50 miles on my feet before Tunnel Hill, and I just did it all at once. I’ve built myself into the runner that five years ago I thought I could never be.
Recovery and run streak.
After finishing, we decided to go home. It was very cold, and we had unfortunately set up our camp under a really bright light, which made it really hard to sleep. So, Ashley tore down our campsite while I sat in the car and warmed up. On the way home, we got fries and onion rings. #treatyoself
On Sunday, we sat on the sofa basically the entire day – except of course for a one-mile run in a park. Another thing I told Ashley was that I really wanted to keep my run streak going, and that she might have to do some convincing to get me out the door on Sunday. But it really wasn’t that bad. We walked a little to warm up, then ran a slow, no-pressure mile, and walked back to the car. On Monday, I ran another slow, no-pressure mile. I’m now 336+ days in a row of running at least one mile a day.
I’m pretty much sold now on the restorative benefits of active recovery of even just one-mile runs. My legs were sore for a few days (I ran 50 miles.), but the soreness faded fast. By Wednesday, I was pretty much good to go, except for a little soreness on the bottoms of my feet, which also went away pretty quickly.
I’ll have some more detail about what’s in store for 2017 in a later post. For now, I’m going to run without a plan for a little while. I’ve run 1,600+ (injury-free) miles so far this year, and I’ll probably end up close to 1,800 for the year. Stay tuned for a list of goals and races for 2017!